What Are Chartplotters and How Do They Work?

Chartplotters are important onboard electronic navigation systems on modern boats that combine a GPS receiver with the ability to display various marine charts. This electronic device enables the boat captain to monitor their position and the vessel’s movement as it relates to the physical environment around it, both above and underwater.

It’s not uncommon for boaters to call their chartplotter a GPS device, but this isn’t necessarily true. A chartplotter has and utilizes GPS data but also offers other features. For example, the addition of electronic charts lets the device pinpoint where a boat is, while the GPS can calculate the direction and speed it is moving in. It can also give insight into the distance or time to the next destination. A chartplotter displays all of this information in real-time. Hence, the person navigating is always aware of their position and where they are going and has an idea of the boat’s position with the environment around it.

On the flip side, it is also common for some boaters and anglers to call their fish finders chartplotters or GPS systems, as modern fish finders on the market also may have chartplotters and GPS capability built in to them. Still confused? Read on to learn how chartplotters work.

How Chartplotters Work

Anyone who uses a boat can install a chartplotter to load routes that can be altered and changed at any time. Some of these devices can even store hundreds or thousands of routes for future use. Routes navigated in the past can be stored and retried.

Each of the routes on a chartplotter provides information that assists with navigation, but it goes beyond that. These items can also help you avoid hazards like shallow reefs or rocks, sand bars, and navigational hazards. Each of these is displayed on a screen to provide a visual representation of the area around the boat. Hazards are also noted through references to latitude and longitude.

Waypoints are each numbered, and as a boat moves past them, the system determines how far the vessel has traveled and how much farther there is to go. Chartplotters can also give insight into whether a boat has gone off course so changes can be made to reach the right waypoint in a reasonable time.

For anglers, specific locations can be located, managed, and stored for more productive outings. Compared to the paper charts of years past, a chartplotter is much easier to use. It also offers a range of additional functions like overlays, man overboard markers, zoom functions, and more. However, it’s always a good idea to keep paper charts, as well, in case of power failures.

The Best Chartplotters for 2021

Of course, not every chartplotter is going to have the same abilities as the next device. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you choose a model that meets your needs. In addition, chartplotters come in various sizes and some may be better for small vessels like kayaks while others are better for huge boats.

No matter what kind of boat you typically use, there’s a chartplotter that can help you with getting where you need to go safely and on time. Some big names in the world of chartplotters and fishfinders are Raymarine, Axiom, Simrad, Garmin and Humminbird, to name a few. Below are some options for the best chartplotters available on the market today, composed of both the most high-tech models and smaller portable versions, depending on your needs.

Simrad Cruise-7 Chartplotter


This chartplotter from Simrad is an excellent choice for those who want functionality and power. It offers a variety of features that help with navigating any vessel. Some of the available information includes battery level, vessel position, and depth readings. The Cruise-7 has an intuitive design that anyone can set up and use in minutes. It also offers preloaded coastal maps, so you don’t have to find and download them on your own.

Garmin GPSMAP 78S Navigator


While the Simrad is a tech-packed chartplotter with a massive screen, the Garmin 78S Navigator is literally pocket-sized. It’s also one of the least expensive chartplotters on the market, which is impressive since Garmin is often considered the best money can buy. It offers a six-inch display and includes both a barometric altimeter and a digital compass.

Humminbird Helix 5


For anglers who want the best chartplotter that meets all their needs, the Humminbird Helix 5 is the answer. Unlike many chartplotters, this one doesn’t feel like the fish finder was added as an afterthought. Instead, it’s one of the device’s main features and provids a wide and narrow beam that lets you control thermoclines, structure, and fish. It also offers down imaging so you can look below and see any hazards underwater.

Garmin GPSMAP 7408 GPS Chartplotter Sounder


Featuring a 10-inch screen, this combination chartplotter and sonar sounder is a great option for many vessels. It offers a full HD in-plane switching touchscreen and top-of-the-line sonar. This device also comes with extremely clear and detailed charts and maps and offers preloaded coastal cartography. Beyond the great maps, this unit includes the Garmin marine network to build items like radar autopilot and cameras controlled by the chartplotter.

B&G Vulcan 7


B&G is considered an industry leader in marine electronics and was the first to offer sailing support features in a consumer electronics system. The Vulcan 7 continues in that tradition by offering a durable, compact, and affordable chartplotter with specific sailing features. The screen is bright and displays wind information, tacking options, and up-to-date navigational charts. It also offers race support and integrates with a variety of accessories.

Raymarine Axiom 7 GPS-Enabled Fishfinder


Offering versatility through various functions, the Axiom 7 can stand up to competing chartplotters on the market. First and foremost, it is an excellent fish finder, perfect for those who enjoy a bit of angling while on the water. It comes with a sonar transducer that can be combined with a wind sensor for a simple and budget-friendly navigation option. It includes GPS, CHIRP sonar, quantum radar, audio integration, autopilot, and other features you’d only expect on more expensive models.

Raymarine Axoim 7 Fishfinder Chartplotter

Above: Raymarine Axiom 7 Fishfinder And GPS Chartplotter. Photo by Raymarine/Amazon.

Wrapping Up

Adding a chartplotter to your boat is a great way to get a better idea of where you are and what is around you at all times. The use of electronic coast and water charts combined with GPS takes a lot of the work off your hands so you can enjoy every journey you take by boat. Whether you need a simple model that fits in the hand or something with a huge screen and vibrant colors, you can count on the chartplotters listed above.

Written by: Valerie Mellema

Valerie Mellema is a writer, published author and avid bass angler who lives on the shores of Lake Fork in East Texas — the top bass lake in Texas and the fifth in the nation. For the past 10 years, she and her husband have enjoyed the pontoon boat lifestyle while fishing a lake that not only has bass but beautiful wildlife as well. She holds a BS in Agribusiness/Equine Business and regularly contributes articles to boats.com, YachtWorld and Boat Trader.

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